Ted Burba loves to swim, and he’s good at it. He twice won the state diving championship as a student at East Grand Rapids High School, and in 1960 swam the last 50 yards for EGR’s state-champion 200-yard relay team.
It could be argued that his 50-year teaching career began in the water too, when as a high school student he started teaching neighborhood kids to swim in his backyard pool. Countless adults in East will tell you they learned to swim from Ted Burba.
“I was working eight hours a day with the munchkin people,” Burba recalled with a laugh. “I found out I love being with young people.”
At age 73, Burba still swims many mornings. And his love of young people has not diminished one bit in 50 years of teaching teens at Northview Public Schools. In psychology, government and other courses, he’s imparted much more than academic content to generations of Northview Wildcats.
“My mom had him as a teacher, and my sister, and then there’s me, so it’s kind of a legacy for everyone to have Mr. Burba as a teacher,” said Amber Irish, a senior who had him for psychology and AP psychology. “He’s one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met. He’s so inspirational.”
His former students include fellow teachers at Northview High School.
“He’s one of those teachers that you have for psychology, but he really kind of teaches you about life,” said Trish Lopucki, supervisor of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program. “(His teaching) was really about relationships, that it doesn’t matter what you do or where you go, it’s how you work with people.”
A Rite of Passage
Burba works with people very well, his colleagues agree. He has the wisdom of Star Wars’ Yoda but the enthusiasm of a teenager, said Mark Thomas, his principal. He calls Burba “the soul of Northview.”
“He’s kind of like a rite of passage in Northview for the kids to go through,” Thomas said. “No matter his age, it’s amazing to me he understands how to build rapport and connect to the kids.”
Burba’s passion for teaching also uplifts his fellow teachers, Thomas added: “He’s kind of like a true north of that emotional compass, to remind us that it’s a gift that we get to work with these kids every day.”
Thomas helped organize a surprise reception in Burba’s honor earlier this year, when dozens of current and former staff gathered in the school media center. Taken aback by the fuss, he cracked, “What is this about? I would prefer money!”
Clearly reluctant to be the center of attention, Burba insisted 50 years was “just a number.” But he also was clearly moved.
“The number is you guys,” he told the group. “The number is all the students I’ve been privileged to have. I’ve been blessed, in so many ways you can’t even imagine.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like being an old man, and what you’ve given me today. It will be taken forever in my mind, and in my heart.”
‘Be the Puppeteer’
Burba came to Northview in the 1965-66 school year as a student teacher from Michigan State University, under the supervision of high school history teacher George Barcheski. He was hired midway through the year to fill an opening at the junior high, and taught four years there before moving to the high school. He replaced Barcheski, who went to East Grand Rapids High School and became a Hall of Fame football coach.
The son of a furniture factory foreman and a homemaker mother, Burba grew up helping his parents care for his infirmgrandmother, and still lives in the house his grandfather built. An early mentor was Pete Bly, his swimming and diving coach and a “brilliant” history teacher, Burba said.
At MSU, he was deeply influenced by one Dr. Moore, a teacher of social-studies instruction and a pint-sized “dynamo” of enthusiasm.
“He wanted to see how creative and imaginative we were,” Burba recalled, sitting at his desk before class. “That’s kind of what I do here: see what I can get out of them, because they are so much more than just the surface I see. … A lot of these kids are carrying loads that are unbelievable.”
In teaching psychology, Burba sometimes will touch on family problems such as alcoholism and see students nodding their heads. Some come up to him later and say, “Thank you. That helped me a little bit.”
“The students are the reward” of teaching, he said. “The feeling that hopefully I can impart things to them, but also I’m learning from them.”
Some of what he imparts might qualify as tough love, with an emphasis on the love.
“I tell them, ‘I’m going to introduce you to your best friend and your worst enemy, and that’s you. The sooner you realize that, the easier life’s speed bumps will be for you.”
He also tells them, “Don’t be the puppet, be the puppeteer. Be the puppeteer of your own life.’”
Feel the Force
Burba arrives at school each day around 5:30 a.m. to do grading and prep work. By his desk are Freud and Jung action figures, little mascots for his psychology classes. He once had a Yoda Pez container.“I am Yoda here, because there’s no one older than I am in the whole system. And I look better than most of the other teachers,” he cracked.
He injects humor into his conversations like handfuls of M&Ms. “Laugh and giggle and smile as much as you can on a daily basis,” he tells students, “because it will always come back to you.”
Beyond the classroom, Burba started the Northview swim program and coached until 1976, then worked as an assistant to East Grand Rapids swim coach Butch Briggs until 1999. He encourages students in science as co-vice president with his wife, Linda, of the Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund, which awards $3,000 for college to Kent County seniors. He speaks fondly of Camille Phaneuf, a Northview student who won the award last year, as “a whiz kid” now going great guns at MSU. “We have so many of those,” he added. “That’s why society’s going to be good.”
He’s enjoyed seeing other graduates go on to have careers and raise families, and still loves teaching students every day. In a recent psychology class, he talked with them about how memory works — and the importance of making lasting ones now.
“Lay down the memories,” he told the class. “You’re going to look back on them and cherish them.”
Such lessons have meant a lot to senior Bryson Dahlin, who has him for AP psychology. “He’s just been an inspiration in my life,” Bryson said. “He’s always been there to guide me. He’s like a father figure.”
He’s also an inspiration to his colleagues, said Nancy Hoffman, a 25-year English teacher whose daughter learned to swim from him.
“No matter who you are or what your circumstances are, Ted is love personified,” Hoffman said. “Every day, he just makes people’s lives better by having the privilege to be around him.”
Looking back over five decades, Burba hopes he’s made his students’ lives a little better.
“The Lord blessed me that I was able to do it this long, and hopefully to be some part of their life as they were part of mine,” he said. “Just to watch them grow and become themselves: That’s the most joy that I can find.”